Monday, January 5, 2009
There is something sublime about Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. Maybe it's seeing Eastwood return in front of the camera for a role that goes beyond our meager expectations into more nuanced territory. Or it might be how the film recalls much of his career in some surprising ways that perfectly sum up Eastwood's outlook on life and his career. Either way, Gran Torino is a beautiful Christmas gift from a prolific filmmaker (it's his second film in 3 months) that will prove to be one of the more important benchmarks in his filmography as both an actor and director. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, retired, a recent widower, veteran of the Korean War. All indications at the start of the movie are that only his late wife understood him. He is alienated from his two sons and their families. A young priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) is the only one reaching out to him, and that only because of a deathbed promise to Kowalski's wife. Kowalski, an apparently stereotypical "cranky old man", rebuffs him, preferring to rail against the decline of our country, wallowing in his racism, seething at his neighborhood's ghettoization by the influx of Hmong "barbarians". The one thing that seems to inspire pride in Kowalski is a 1972 mint-condition Ford Gran Torino. When Thao (Bee Vang), the Hmong boy next door, attempts to steal it as part of a gang initiation, this sets off a series of events that lead Kowalski to reexamine his hardened attitudes. Eastwood smartly dances around his tough-guy image to lure us into Torino's story. When he finds Thao breaking in, he corners the boy with his shotgun aimed squarely at him. Confronting the hopeless gang, who are so determined to prove to Thao that he has little chance of escaping his neighborhood that they'll kill to have him join the gang, Kowalski tells them that in Korea he used to stack up bodies of guys like them; use them as sandbags. You can be forgiven for expecting some Dirty Harry-type heroics at this point, except that Eastwood is smarter than that. Kowalski is lonely, seeking human contact, which he finds from Thao's sister, Sue (Ahney Her), a precocious teen who sees through his gruffness. In fact, an unspoken reason he connects with Sue is a repeated tendency to be more demanding of males than females, so you could add a bit of reverse-sexism to his list of faults. In a sense, Kowalski sees himself in many of the young males in this movie, and either finds them weak and wanting, as he does Thao and Father Janovich, or he punishes them when he sees his own failings magnified and manifested in them, as he does in the Hmong gang members. After the gang strikes out against his neighbors, Kowalski is unexpectedly cautious for an Eastwood character, waiting for his anger to subside in order to think clearly in calculating the correct degree of retaliation. Like in some of his earlier films, Eastwood explores the pitfalls of using violence to resolve conflicts. He again approaches it through the conduit of a violent man who stands in sharp relief to the weaker folks he must defend. Like Unforgiven's William Munny, Walt Kowalski is haunted by his killing in the past. Like Butch (Kevin Costner) in A Perfect World (1993), Kowalski is conscious of protecting the innocent from harm. And like Jimmy (Sean Penn) in Mystic River (2003), Harry Callahan, and any number of protagonists in Eastwood's films, Kowalski is not above taking matters into his own hands to avenge those in his care. The difference is that Kowalski and Eastwood are older, wiser, nearer to the end of their lives. They realize the consequences both moral and societal of committing murder. Eastwood plays on our expectations surrounding his vigilante persona, and inverts the outcome of the film to great effect. Gran Torino is an elegy to the gun-toting avenger of Eastwood's past, an exorcism of a persona that, at nearly 80 years of age, marks a rebirth for the actor-director. Gran Torino is in limited release, and opens across the country on January 9th.